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Finding “The Dress”

What's that behind me?
What’s that behind me? It follows me wherever I go!
Friends will carry your train while you try on wedding dresses. Good friends will hum the wedding march. Best friends wil morph the wedding march into the Imperial March from Star Wars when they get bored.

Last Friday, I flew home to California to go wedding dress shopping, a concept that I was about as comfortable with as a cat is a bath. I know, logically, that I should enjoy the ride. I only get to do this once! But social events are inherently not a Heather kind of thing, especially where she is the center of attention. It feels inherently selfish to pester bridesmaids with dress ideas and blather endlessly about plans to my poor groom-to-be. (Drew is incredibly patient.)

However, I was very excited about one aspect of dress hunting. My aunt had shipped her mother’s wedding dress to us. She didn’t know if it were in wearable condition, if it were too small or too large for me, or if the veil were still with it, but said I could use it however I saw fit. When I arrived home, it was sitting in a corner of my room, still in the UPS box. I was a little slow and hesitant opening it, because I didn’t know what to expect. The only time I’d seen the dress was in an old black-and-white photo of my grandparents that used to sit on a table in our den. All I remembered was lace: lots of lace.

Unpacking the box was a bit like discovering hidden treasure. We (my bridesmaids, Sarah and Keri) opened the veil first. The tulle crumbled, but the lace was intact, as was the beaded tiara-like headpiece. The veil is probably cathedral-length. We pulled it around me, just like the picture of my grandparents. Dad snapped a picture on his cell phone and texted it to his sister. It’s incredible to think what my grandmother would have thought of technology.

The dress was still in its original box, from a “frock” shop in Cicero, IL. The address — on Cermak — was hand-scrawled on the front. “Bill enclosed,” it said. (Mom later looked up the shop. Their “better” dresses started at $10.95.) Though the bill was no longer present, what was there was unexpectedly great. One invitation, dated April 1940, for my grandmother’s wedding in Chicago. (I had no idea when I moved here that I had such family ties to Chicagoland.) One wedding certificate, elaborate and bigger than a legal-sized piece of paper, decorating with a scene of cherubs and Biblical characters. Confusingly, it was from the Roman Catholic church.

“Hey, Dad, your mom and dad weren’t Catholic, were they?” He came over to look at it. Then I noticed the names were wrong.

“Who is…someone Wallace?”

It turned out to be my great-grandparents’ wedding certificate. “‘Til death do us part,” read the banner across the bottom. It is sort of odd to think about how long they’ve both been gone; how fast life flies by in the grand scheme of things. Were they happy together? What did they learn about being married? What made them laugh? What made them angry? Did he leave his socks on the floor? Was she a good cook?

And then there was the dress itself. Heavy ivory satin, beaded at the top with a cathedral-length train. Sarah and Keri were all too happy to help me get it on. The sleeves were far too short and I couldn’t move my shoulders. The gown was hemmed for my five-foot-one grandmother, and my jeans (why I was still wearing jeans, I don’t know) peeked out the bottom. The bosom was three sizes too large.

Mom said I should see myself in her full-length mirror. I walked gingerly down the hallway, Sarah and Keri lifting my train “like Kate Middleton.” One of them started humming the wedding march; Mom asked if it were a funeral dirge. Somehow, suddenly the wedding march began to sound a great deal like a certain piece of Star Wars music…

I decided, after dress shopping the next day, not to wear my grandmother’s dress. Heavy satin and California’s Augusts don’t mesh, and the alterations that would be required would be substantial. But being able to touch it and try it on and see for myself what I had only seen in a hand-colored photo made me feel somehow close to the woman who wore it in 1940. I never knew her, but I know that she must have danced quite a lot in her gown, from where there were streaks on the train. I know that her cascade of flowers scratched the satin on her midriff. I know that she was ever-so-careful with the delicate lace on her veil. I know she was smaller, but built well (no doubt do to some of her mother’s good Czech cooking). And I know that though she has been gone since the 1960s, part of her will always live on through my dad’s stories, his fried cauliflower, and a lovely old dress from what surely must have been one of the happiest days of her life.

As for me? Instead of chopping up her dress, I found one that I would much rather alter. Maybe someday someone will try it on and think about who I might have been.

Published in Family Friends

One Comment

  1. Squee! :-)

    Jennie sent me the pictures before you posted them here, haha, and I loved them. This dress is very much you. And it looks lovely.

    Look at us, getting wedding dresses… DRESSPOWER!

    (I am very tired. That last paragraph totally made sense in my head until I reread it.)

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